Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Welcome to Tampa!

Marilyn and I flew in to Tampa from Chicago late one night in August of 2001 with very mixed feelings about the next day's interviews with Wesley Memorial UMC.  On one hand, we were excited about the possibilities of a new ministry, a new church home and being back in Florida.  On the other hand, we had very little idea what to expect from the church.  A phone interview had revealed some issues and some promise, but other than that we knew very little. The trip got off to a slow start when no one was at the airport to pick us up, but after a quick phone call that was taken care of.   Senior Pastor Jerry Sweat drove us to our hotel, a Doubletree overlooking beautiful Tampa Bay.  He would pick us up the next morning and take us to the church for a day of interviews and meeting people.  It was on.

Jerry was tied up the next morning, but he sent Robyn Smith to pick us up.  Robyn was a young woman who volunteered with the youth program (along with her husband Ed), and they would become very special to us over the coming years.  I didn't really know much about Tampa.  I knew it had a bay, had the Bucs and the Devil Rays, and was a fairly large city.  The area our hotel was in was beautiful and very modern- even a little touristy.  As we drove the very strange route to the church (Tampa roads, we would learn, were designed by a maze builder.  They did not want you to ever find your way!) we started down a road lined with run-down strip shopping centers, old buildings and apartment complexes.  Many of the names were Hispanic.  Robyn informed us we were arriving at the church, and as we pulled into the left turn lane my heart sank.  There sat WMUMC across a grass field- probably 100 yards from the road.  It was very unimpressive.  It looked old and a bit beat up.  It was much smaller than any church I had ever served.  I found myself looking at Marilyn and immediately judging this book by it's cover.  Expectations were quickly lowered.

We were warmly greeted as arrived inside the building.  While my initial judgement of the facility as a whole had been fair, the worship space was gorgeous.  And as we began the interview process and meeting people, I began to feel much more at ease.  Once the interview process began, I felt like they were testing my endurance as much as they were curious about my faith and my philosophies.  Group after group just kept arriving at the church to meet with me, in addition to the lunch "grilling" at Red Lobster.  I kept reminding myself how badly they had just been burned by a couple of past staff members and tried to cut them some slack.  But still- this was intense!

Right after school let out I met with a group of the students involved in the ministry.  They seemed hesitant to ask questions until one of the older youth, Kyle Bell, asked me a very unusual question: "How do you feel about dating?"  I was a bit confused, but managed a witty reply:  "I'm not sure.  After all, we just met!"  It turned out that the previous regime had spent a great deal of time discouraging the kids from hanging out with the opposite sex.  They even made them sit on opposite sides of the bus on trips.  I assured them that would not be my policy.  After that, the questions started flying.  I really liked the students I met and felt like we connected.

All in all I thought the day went well.  George Woods, the head of the personnel committee, was also the marketing director for the Bucs, and he gave us Bucs hats to wear home.  Marilyn and I had a lot to think and pray about.  There were issues, just as there are at every church.  Due to a snafu with keys, we had still not seen the inside of the house we would live in.  There were questions.  We returned to Chicago to see what God had to say to us, and discovered we that we felt called to Tampa.  We were moving back to Florida.  But not just yet...

Because of Jesus,

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